Portland and its surrounding counties are taking part in Topoff 4, a full-scale disaster preparedness exercise, organized and funded by the Department of Homeland Security. The idea is to prepare the city to act quickly and effectively in the event of a disaster—which could be anything from an earthquake, to a flu epidemic or a terrorist attack.
For many people simply mentioning disaster preparation brings up Hurricane Katrina and the way African Americans, poor people and the most fragile Gulf Coast residents were neglected by those in charge. Can we be sure that wouldn't happen in Portland?
Kerry Dugan in Portland Office of Emergency Management said Oregon and Portland would face completely different challenges.
"We have plans in place to deal with vulnerable populations and deal with the poor," Dugan said. "Not that it would be perfect and go off without any problems at all, but I will say that we are much more thoughtful and much more careful in our planning — so that that does not happen here in Portland."
But members of the Culturally Specific Emergency Commu-nications Project, run through Multnomah County, say community agencies need funds to do outreach work. The project has spent two years researching how best to communicate with different communities of color, immigrant and refugee families during a crisis. Yet while its recommendations have been acclaimed, the organizations who can carry out the plan are not receiving funding to do so.
"There needs to be dollars attached to it," said Rebecca Hernandez, director of community building at Hacienda Community Development Organization. "The work needs to be done and we have expertise to share so there is part of that we need to do, but this is not our primary mission."
Using funding from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, 11 diverse community-based organizations surveyed their communities to find out where people got their information, how information was disseminated in each community, and what would be the best way to get information to people during an emergency. Taking part were groups such as the Asian Health and Service Center, the Immigrant and Refugee Organization and Russian Oregon Social Services.
"We worked with the Latino Network and El Programa Hispano to conduct interviews and survey our community which we did over a four-county region," said Rebecca Hernandez. "From that we wrote recommendations for the larger plan that said here's what we learned from our Latino community and here's how you can effectively communicate with them."
The plan details how to go about engaging diverse communities – recommendations useful to all kinds of emergency planning, not just health services. Yet despite the project's success, changes to HRSA funding guidelines meant that money no longer was available.
"This can be applied across the board," said Kathryn Richer, Region 1 coordinator for hospital and health system preparedness, who has worked with the group. "These people are really invested in what they are doing and they are doing great work. They are really committed."
The project now operates under the Multnomah County Emergency Services Department where, Richer said, it could play a useful role in ensuring the Katrina disaster does not replay in Portland.
For example, the county now has designated point people for different communities in incident command rooms, who are ready to work with the community organizations. "We're at the very front end of implementing that and we hope to exercise that next year, Richer said. "Of course it needs funding."
But funding is just what is missing, despite efforts by Richer and by Steve Bullock, the emergency services administrator who brought the project together.
"There have been small pots of money thanks to Steve," said Corliss McKeever, executive director of the African American Health Coalition. "Multnomah County did a smart thing in bringing someone to the table who has the community's interest at heart because we all trust him."
Of course, some Homeland Security funding for disaster preparation – about $9 million this year — does come to the region – which includes Clark, Columbia, Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah counties. The money covers everything from joint planning and communications efforts to intelligence gathering and responding to incidents.
Keith Berkery, who manages Community Emergency Services for the City of Portland and chairs the region-wide working group, said some of the money supports Citizens Corps programs, a national initiative that trains volunteers for:
* Community Emergency Response Teams: Educates people about disaster preparedness and trains them in basic disaster response skills, such as light search and rescue.
* Fire Corps: Supports the fire services with administration, fire safety.
* Volunteers in Police Service: Supports police work.
* USAOnWatch: A neighborhood watch program. Crime prevention and terrorism awareness.
Training is free to anyone who signs up, Berkery said.
Berkery has nothing but praise for the Multnomah County group. The problem is, he says, funding is tight.
"In San Francisco, which is more advanced than we are, the Red Cross found that only six percent of people were prepared for a disaster," Berkery said. "So along with my colleagues, I am concerned about everyone in the Portland area. We only get so much and everyone is behind the curve, so I have to go for the biggest bang for the buck."
As far as outreach to minority communities, Berkery said the program is now printing information in Spanish and has asked for funds to train people from community-based organizations, such as those who worked on the project, so that they can train others in disaster preparation. In addition, the five-region Community Emergency Services working group has requested funds for a Cultural Competency Consultant to coordinate with community organizations throughout the five-county area.
"We are putting someone in place to be directly accessible to these folks," Berkery said. "Is it the ideal? Is it absolutely what I'd want? No. But I think it is the best I can get."
McKeever, a certified Cultural Competency trainer, said the money could be better spent. "That is such an insult to us to spend the money in that way," she said. "Instead of coming to communities who have the answers to their own problems we hire consultants and there are no resources to do the work. We want communities to come for free."
Rebecca Hernandez wants to see a larger concerted effort throughout the region for culturally specific populations.
"I am not asking for a ton of money to come to our agency because this is a larger systems issue," Hernandez said. "If there is a large-scale disaster there are people in place like police and fire and the city structure that needs to do stuff. The question is, will they remember people of color? I want them to do their job better I don't necessarily need to do their job for them."